Liar & Spy
Written by Rebecca Stead
Published by Wendy Lamb Books
ISBN # 978-0385737432
Grades 4 and up
Georges is dealing with a lot this school year. His father lost his job, and his mother works double shifts at the hospital practically every night to make ends meet; his family has to move from the house he grew up in to an apartment in the same neighborhood; and he continues to suffer the puerile seventh grade taunts of a popular classmate. So when he is recruited into a secret spy club by Safer, a coffee-drinking home-taught boy in his apartment building, he unwittingly enters into a friendship that demands more of him than he ever suspected. The object of their intelligence gathering is the suspicious Mr. X, who also lives in the apartment building, dresses only in black, and carries large body-sized suitcases to and from his residence. As Georges’s skills of observation, secrecy, and deduction sharpen while following Mr. X, his own values, fears, and decisions are put to the test. All the while, events even more questionable are developing among his own friends and family. In Liar and Spy, Newbery winning author Rebecca Stead offers readers a satisfying novel full of suspense, plot twists, and complex main characters. It is her examination of character motivation and the ways in which we deal with life’s challenges, however, that will resonate long after the surprises are revealed. An ideal read aloud for English language arts classes, or a worthy recommendation for literature circles and independent reading, Liar and Spy is another admirable novel by Stead.
Teaching Ideas and Classroom Invitations
Examining Friendships. At the novel’s beginning, Georges is wary of friendships, having inexplicably lost his best friend from childhood to the popular crowd. Yet, when he learns the truth about Safer, he takes a stand about what he thinks friendship means to him. At the same time, George’s father offers his own take on the boys’ friendship, and later, Georges is surprised when Bob English Who Draws declares himself to be Georges’ friend. Ask your students whether they agree with any of these takes on friendship. If so, what experiences or evidence do they have to support their understandings? How do those experiences or evidence connect back to or disconnect with the friendships portrayed in Liar and Spy? Encourage your students to write informational essays about what friendship is to them, or push them a step further to write a letter to a friend about the same topic.
Describing Taste. The sense of taste is used as a metaphor throughout the novel. Examine the five different tastes (six, if you count bittersweet) discussed in Liar and Spy. Bring in different food or drink items that match each taste, and have students study and experience them. Then, have them create multi-genre writing portfolios about a particular taste of their choosing. For example, their portfolio could include a poem, an informational article, a personal narrative, and a persuasive piece all about a single taste. You may have them create individual or small group portfolios, depending on what works best in your classroom.
Seurat and Pointillism. – Georges Seurat is not only the protagonist’s namesake, but he is widely known in the art world as the father of pointillism, an artistic technique conceived of using dots of two or more colors in the same area to give the illusion of solid space and new color. Have students create works of art using pointillism techniques. It might be helpful to first have them outline the shapes they want to illustrate, and then have them fill those shapes in with dots of different colors to give the desired effect. See the websites listed below for examples of children’s art activities and artwork using pointillism.
Observation Skills. Though Safer develops his skills of observation to spy on his neighbors, honing one’s observation skills can be handy for lots of reasons, from the personal and social to the academic and professional. Assign your students a particular location or event in the school or community to observe (e.g., the school bus ride, the recess yard, a neighborhood park, a local store) over a set period of time, and have them keep an observation notebook, in which they record all the events that occur there. Who comes and goes? Who stays there the entire time? What does each person do? What seems to be “business as usual”, and what seems different or out of place? You might want to have students do this as partners and then compare their notes with each other. Refer to any of the other books about spies listed below, such as Harriet the Spy, for other ideas about what to observe and note. Have them share their observations with the class and use them to write an informational, descriptive, or even fictional piece about what they observed. You can also extend this activity to objects in the community (e.g., a tree on their street, a building across from the school) to build some content area connections.
The Big Picture. Using Seurat’s painting as a metaphor, Georges’s mom reminds him to always keep the big picture in mind when the day-to-day happenings become confusing or challenging. This metaphor can also extend to the overall story. After figuring out the bigger story behind Safer’s spy club, Safer’s name, and Georges’s mother’s reasons for staying long hours at the hospital, invite your students to reread the novel, looking for the clues to the bigger picture that Rebecca Stead sprinkles throughout the pages. Ask them how can they interpret these clues now that they know the full story. You might also pose the question, “Who is the liar and spy in the title?”
The Unreliable Narrator. Yet another thematic layer in Liar and Spy in the spinning of tales by unreliable storytellers. Safer isn’t the only one concocting stories about people’s lives; Georges embraces the role of liar in several ways. Engage your students in a discussion about why he does this at different points in the novel. Are there times when lying or perpetuating a false set of events is actually helpful? If they were in each of Georges’ situations, would they tell the same lie? Does it matter to whom the lie is told? When the narrator of the story becomes a liar, what does this do to your understanding of him/her? What does it do to your relationship as a reader to the narrator?
Coping with Financial Loss. Georges’s family is under the financial strain caused by the loss of his father’s job. Many of your students’ families may be in similar situations. Encourage your students to critically examine how Stead portrays the situation. How does Georges’s family cope with the situation on a day-to-day basis? Is that how it is for your students, or anyone they know in similar situations? What seems plausible, and what seems unrealistic? How does the portrayal of Georges’s situation make them feel about financial strain? For comparison, have them read a number of other texts that specifically center the experiences of families who have suffered a loss of income, such as The Hard Times Jar.
Rebecca Stead’s website
International Spy Museum
Central Intelligence Agency Spy Games for Kids
Spy-themed Science Activities
Lesson Plans and Activities for Teaching about the Sense of Taste
KidsHealth: Dealing with Bullies
Bullying – Women’s and Children’s Health Network
Analysis of Seurat’s Un Dimanche a la Grande Jatte
Paint with the Pointillator
Pointillism Craft Projects
Samples of Children’s Pointillism
Brennan, H. (2010). The shadow project. New York: Balzer & Bray.
- A young orphan boy discovers and gets roped into a secret government program designed to spy on the world’s terrorists in this science fiction thriller.
Carter, A. (2009). Don’t judge a girl by her cover. XXX: Disney Hyperion.
- In this novel, two girls who attend an elite private school for spy trainees must use their spy skills to save those they love.
Cormier, R. (1991). I am the cheese. New York: Dell.
- A haunting novel with alternating point-of-view chapters and a largely unreliable child narrator who has rewritten his life events in order to cope with the hardships he has experienced.
Fitzhugh, L. (1964). Harriet the spy. New York: Harper & Row.
- The classic children’s novel about a girl who observes and writes down everything she knows about everyone, until she loses her notebook and fears what it may do to her life and friendships.
Freeman, M. (1999). Fourth-grade weirdo. New York: Dell Yearling.
- The story of Dexter, an oddball who can’t seem to fit in at school, and how he uses his keen observation skills to catch a thief at school.
Gibbs, S. (2012). Spy school. New York: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers.
- In this humorous novel for intermediate and middle school readers, twelve-year old Ben is recruited by an elite school for the sciences, which is really a front for junior C.I.A. training.
Preus, M. (2012). Shadow on the mountain. New York: Amulet Books.
- Set during WWII, this historical fiction novel recounts the adventures of a boy who is recruited by the Norwegian resistance movement to become a spy.
Raskin, E. (1975/2011). The tattooed potato and other clues. XXX: Dutton.
- A clever series of mystery chapters interconnected by a young girls’ training in art and detective work.
Filed under: Novels
About Grace Enriquez
Grace is an associate professor of language and literacy at Lesley University. A former English Language Arts teacher, reading specialist, and literacy consultant, she teaches and writes about children’s literature, critical literacies, and literacies and embodiment. Grace is co-author of The Reading Turn-Around and co-editor of Literacies, Learning, and the Body.
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